Posted by: dacalu | 2 October 2013

Naturalism I

Dear Friends,

It is my intention to lay out my arguments regarding naturalism over the next few posts.  The question of naturalism has to do with whether this world of matter and energy is all there is.  It also has to do with whether science trumps all other forms of knowing.  From a different angle, we might say it deals with the limits of learning by observation (sense data) relative to reason and reason relative to revelation.  Needless to say, this will be a foundational question for any meaningful dialogue about the relationship of science to religion.

I’ve separated into sections for readability, and each should make sense on its own, but with luck I will carry a single line of thought through the next few posts.  I’d like to thank Carl Dietrich, David Haig, Adrian Young, John Wakeley, Alex Byrne, Roger White, Ethan Mills, the science and religion reading group at MIT, and friends on Facebook who have all jogged my thinking on this subject over the past two weeks.  To begin with

What is Naturalism?

That turns out to be a fairly difficult question.  It has something to do with the claim that the physical universe is all there is.  After reading a number of very thoughtful articles and books I find no consistent definition out there.  To the best of my knowledge, naturalism has no coherent common definition in the general public (as suggested by talking with a number of friends) or in philosophy (as David Papineau suggests in this entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  I am not saying it is a meaningless concept, only that it is poorly defined and as such we need to be particularly careful when asserting that it is true or false, useful or misleading.  Worse yet, we cannot claim any expert testimony on the subject unless we’re confident the expert is talking about the same thing we are.  With this in mind, I would like to make a couple general remarks that seem to apply across the board.

General Remarks

Everyone seems to agree that naturalism is a universal statement about reality and what it contains.  As such it is a strong philosophical claim.  Classically, it is a metaphysical and an ontological claim as it deals with what exists and what does not exist.  Thank you to John Wakeley for pointing out that this classical definition includes a problematic prior – notably that there is a meaningful distinction to be made between existence and non-existence.  Though naturalism is almost always framed in this way, it need not be.  Let me posit that naturalism is a claim about those things which we can meaningfully use to describe the circumstances in which we find ourselves, both as individuals and as a community.  Things, in this case are usually objects and causes, but may (or may not) also include subjects (who experience), values,….  The very question at stake has to do with what pieces we are allowed to introduce into the game, what words we are allowed to use, and what explanations we are allowed to invoke.  In this respect, I am a pragmatist, so I will say it this way:

Naturalism is a universal claim about what we can meaningfully talk about.  It usually, but not necessarily, involves the addendum “because those are the only things that correspond to an external reality.”  In philosophy and theology, the base claim is called methodological naturalism and only refers to what may be talked about in a particular context.  I and many others think that science requires methodological naturalism.  When doing science, I feel it is only acceptable to talk about naturalist things, invoke naturalist causes, and give naturalist explanations.  The stronger claim, the claim about the brute facts universe, goes by the name of ontological naturalism.  Ontological naturalism asserts that neither I nor anyone else, in any context, can meaningfully speak in a non-naturalist way, except as a crude stand-in for a naturalist way.  Ontological naturalists freely admit that concepts like love, duty, and personhood are meaningful, but believe they can – and eventually should – be explained in terms of naturalistic processes.

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Responses

  1. […] This post is one in a series about naturalism.  Having introduced the general concept of naturalism, I turn to some specific types of naturalism that seem to be common in the general public.  From “Naturalism I”: […]

  2. […] This post is one in a series about naturalism.  Having introduced the general concept of naturalism and one popular form I call Thomistic naturalism, I turn to a more recent version common in the general public.  From “Naturalism I”: […]

  3. […] This post is one in a series about naturalism.  I have not found a common consistent definition of naturalism.  Having covered, what I think are the foundations of naturalism, historically, I shall try to propose a coherent modern naturalism that makes sense.  From “Naturalism I”: […]

  4. […] the idea that only natural/physical things exist or are worth talking about.  The series starts here.  In the first post, I talk about naturalism in general terms and speak to my unease that it has […]

  5. […] that the world is wholly made up of natural or physical objects and events.  The series starts here.  After exploring what naturalism could mean, I gave it the most sympathetic treatment I could and […]

  6. […] that the world is wholly made up of natural or physical objects and events.  The series starts here.  After exploring what naturalism could mean, I gave it the most sympathetic treatment I could and […]

  7. […] that the world is wholly made up of natural or physical objects and events.  The series starts here.  After exploring what naturalism could mean, I gave it the most sympathetic treatment I could and […]


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